Travel Photography 101 17.5/18

28 11 2008

Confessions, tips and musings from snap-happy wanderers.

Maasai elder                                   (near the Masai Mara, Kenya)

Never leave anything but a good impression.


Amongst my favourite photographers are Yousuf Karsh, Lord Snowdon and Jack Cardiff who, while taking great portraits have been able to capture so much more than someone’s mere appearance or facial features. On so many occasions, these great artists have been able to capture their subjects’ personalities and character – no mean feat when wielding a camera.


Travelling always brings us into contact with so many fascinating people who we will never forget. Whether fellow travellers or people we meet along the way, it is so often the people that stay in our memories even longer than the sights or experiences. Photographing the local people is, in my opinion, significantly more difficult than snapping wildlife, buildings or scenery but it’s well worth the effort. However, if attempting to photograph those you meet on your travels always remember to be respectful and seek their permission, be warm and friendly and thank them afterwards and never photograph children without first asking a parent or guardian. While many cultures do not like having their photographs taken at all, none of us ever like having a camera shoved in our face by a complete stranger.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 26

27 11 2008

“Dear Diary, Day 4: Fell off my stool again…”         (Mgahinga, Uganda)



“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

Oscar Wilde





Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 37

25 11 2008

Never ignore a guinea fowl.


The Okaukuejo campsite in Namibia’s Etosha National Park is unique in that the visitors are fenced in and the wildlife runs free. Trenches, walls and high fences surround the campsite on all sides with benches and mini-grandstands lining the perimeter allowing campers to view the floodlit waterholes and arid wilderness beyond.


Late one afternoon we had strolled to the benches for a few hours of game-viewing at the neighbouring waterhole. There was no shade and we sheltered beneath the inadequate brims of our hats and jealously guarded our water bottles. A steady parade of zebras and giraffe, elephant and antelope sauntered to the hole for a quick drink before wandering back onto the sun-parched plains. After a short while, the parade petered out and apart from two turtles half-submerged in the murky green water and a few guinea fowl hastily trotting past in the background, there was nothing in sight.


Despite the unrelenting heat, we continued our stakeout. The turtles remained motionless while more guinea fowl raced past. Initially in ones and twos, the fat little flightless birds were now racing past in packs like water-balloons rolling down a slope. In little clusters they sped past on short legs, wobbling as they speed-waddled in a mass fowl exodus.


We watched the display with bemused smirks. We half expected to see a herd of marauding elephants suddenly materialise from the scrub, or even Wile E Coyote with acme anvil in hand. The feathery stampede provided excellent entertainment for ages…until the reason for their mass migration became apparent.


With a mighty gust, the hot wind suddenly roared and carried with it half of Etosha’s sand. The air boiled with the browns and ambers of the stinging grit and we soon found ourselves hunched against the mightiest of mighty dust storms. It was the sort of apocalypse that had besieged Lawrence and from which the Tasmanian Devil had emerged. We turned our backs to the onslaught, but the particles whipped around and blasted our faces. We pulled our mouths and noses deep inside the collars of our t-shirts, pushed our sunglasses closer to our eyes, pulled our hats down as low as possible and attempted our escape.


The suffocating dust had turned day to night and we groped our way back across the compound in what we assumed was the direction of our camp, tripping over tent pegs and rock-lined pathways with each step. Although confident we were headed in the right direction, we instead reached the perimeter on the far side and had to double-back. The dust was now choking and the wind stronger than ever. The sand bit at all exposed skin while we attempted to protect our eyes and breathe through the filter of our shirts. Eventually, like wayward desert nomads, we stumbled back to our camp and clambered into the kitchen block, quickly closing the door behind us.


The storm banged at the windows and sent a tide of sand slithering across the tiled floor. It continued for perhaps an hour as we remained entranced by the menacing blast that buffeted the windows.  Though my ears remained clogged by the sand, over the roar of the merciless elements I detected another sound…a rising and ebbing song…a taunting melody…a high-pitched warble…as though several hundred porkie little guinea fowl were mocking those of us who had earlier laughed at their migration.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

The Prime Minister’s Bottom

24 11 2008


From time to time we are all touched by famous people…but it is not often that we touch them…especially world leaders, and particularly on the bottom.


I was attending a travel trade show in a large arena in Christchurch, New Zealand.  On the second day, Prime Minister Helen Clark paid a visit and was taken on a tour by the organiser. Accompanied by her minister of tourism and a small entourage of aides, assistants and security personnel, she made her way up and down the aisles visiting the different exhibitors at their display booths.


Late for a meeting, I was hastily making my way up one of the aisles when I encountered the Prime Ministerial party blocking the way. I slowed down and was about to return the way I had come when I spied a shaft of light through the throng and, accepting that I really had no time for such a detour, forged onwards.


The Prime Minister was on the edge of a booth as I approached and the rest of her entourage was loosely staged around her and across the aisle. Under the watchful eye of her security detail, I continued forward and with Excuse Me’s whispered beneath my breath, my body streamlined sideways and one hand extended forward as a pathfinder, began to politely slide through the pack. My arm worked like an icebreaker and carved my way through the crowd with my body following suit. With eyes lowered for obstructions, my outstretched hand suddenly made contact with someone moving backwards and brushed long and languorously against them. My eyes quickly looked to see what had been encountered.


There, at waist level, my hand was pressed against a 90% wool 10% cashmere bottom. As if in slow motion, my eyes followed the hand upwards to discover that the bottom belonged to none other than…the Prime Minister. I snapped my hand back and glanced about me, hoping that my brush with the seat of power had gone unnoticed. Alas, I was out of luck: a security officer was eyeing me malevolently, his earpiece twitching, his hand hovering near the bulge that was his concealed shoulder holster.


I smiled weakly, whispered another Excuse me, slipped through the remainder of the crowd and, never looking back, sprinted down the carpet and out of sight around a corner. 



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Photography 101 10.5/18

21 11 2008

Confessions, tips and musings from a snap-happy wanderer.

“Bartender, the ice in my drink is stale.”    (Close-up of Vatnajokul glacier, Iceland) 


The Big Picture isn’t always the best picture


One of the most difficult animals to photograph in Africa is the elephant. It is so big that it’s very difficult to photograph it and capture any sense of perspective. Too often elephants end up being a solid mass devoid of contour, colour or size. The same can be true of anything else that’s particularly large be it a building, a mountain, a canyon or any natural feature. When this happens, in addition to snapping the ‘Big Picture’, also look for an interesting detail of a smaller aspect that helps paint the whole picture. With a building, it could be a particular angle, corner or finishing touch. Focus on that which others may overlook.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Lessons Learned The Hard Way – No. 8

20 11 2008

“Okay now, everybody take a deep breath…then blow….”  (Sossussvlei, Namibia)

Some balloon flights are full of hot air.


We watched the enormous glowing beacon of colour take shape and slowly rise from the desert floor in the pre-dawn darkness. The balloon flight was to take us over the ancient Namib desert and the mighty Sossussvlei dunes that tower hundreds of metres into the arid sky.  We were to coast silently over the flowing sands and experience a new perspective of the dramatic landscape we had previously only explored on foot and by vehicle. Barring coastal fog, we might also see the Skeleton Coast and Atlantic Ocean beyond.


With the sun splintering along the horizon, we climbed into the enormous basket. The burner roared, the lines connecting us to terra firma were severed and we lifted into the still air. We soon reached our optimal altitude and, opening a flap in the canopy to release some of the hot air, we levelled off and sat silently well above the desert.


As far as our eyes could see stretched the ambers, ochres and tans of the Namib. There was little evidence of humanity beyond the few park service buildings, our campsite and a road or two all directly beneath us. Those apart, there was nothing but endless desert. The peaks of the mighty dunes we had struggled to climb the previous evening rose from the floor into a rolling tide of sand that seemed to threaten to engulf all in its path. I snapped a few shots and eagerly longed for us to drift directly over their majesty.


Alas, there was no drifting. In fact, there was no movement at all. The air was as perfectly still as the night had been a short while earlier. There wasn’t so much as a whisper of a breeze and consequently not so much as a sway of movement. The pilot leaned over the side of the basket as if to see if we were still anchored.


“Let’s climb and find a current” he said hopefully.  Donning his protective gloves he opened the burner, singeing our scalps and deafening us.  Up we rose in a perfectly vertical trajectory gaining not so much as an inch in any other direction.


“Not much wind today” he said unnecessarily as we all gazed at him desperately. “We’ll try descending.” With that, he opened one of the flaps and we slowly lost altitude, again perfectly vertically as if sliding down a pole.


The support vehicle that was to follow and collect us at the end of our flight was still parked directly below. The engine was turned off, the doors were open, the driver looked asleep.


The view was impressive, but gently rotating above a 4WD in a barren patch of sand when towering sand dunes were but a heavy-breath away was more than a little frustrating. Our cameras were by now idle. Once the basket had done its first 360-degree turn, there was not a lot left to capture. The sun was climbing higher in the sky and it was getting warmer and warmer. In the close confines of the basket the pilot attempted to avoid our glares.


Eventually, after the promised minimum flight time, we slid back down the pole to the ground beneath, significantly less exhilarated than any of us had anticipated.  We despondently stepped from the basket and strolled over to the luxury breakfast table that had been set up just to the side. The same breakfast table that should have been in the middle of nowhere, hidden amongst the dunes, accessible only by valiant 4WD and romantic balloon. Instead, we sat near the shade of a shower block and a few telegraph wires and watched the occasional vehicle drive past.


We cracked the champagne and half-heartedly cheered our pogo-flight while digging into our gourmet mini sausages and scrambled eggs.


“Hmmm”, the pilot muttered as the corner of his napkin fluttered, “…a breeze.”



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Food For Thought

18 11 2008

“What a large table!”                                   (near Aswan, Egypt)

Some of my greatest travel memories involve food. Not that I am a gourmet or even a gourmand, it’s just that a taste of local cuisine so often provides you with the best taste of the culture and life. Although we all enjoy the familiarity of comfort food from time to time when away from home, it’s when we abandon that safety that we have our best experiences.


In Egypt we joined a small group for a visit to a local Nubian village for a traditional dinner one evening.


Our small motorboat cruised up the Nile away from the bright lights of Aswan. Dogs barked as we passed small villages and young children ran to the bank to wave and shout. The stifling heat of the day was quickly dissipating and the light breeze from the water was a welcome reprieve, especially as we had all forsaken our baggy and dusty cotton sightseeing clothes for slightly-more presentable attire. After a while we stopped on the shore, climbed out and made our way up a sandy bank.


No sooner had we crested the top than the village came into sight. Although almost dark, much of the town was gathered around the edges of a large open area to watch a hotly contested football match. The shouts and excitement of the game were immediately lost upon entering the labyrinth of narrow alleyways that dissected the town. We wound our way along the sandy paths and through the white-washed buildings, illuminated only by the soft light from open doorways and shuttered windows. Our small group slipped through practically unseen, easing past the shadows of the villagers along the narrow alleys. The smell of cooking and the muffled sound of laughs and conversation filled the air.


We finally stepped into a small dimly lit courtyard surrounded by high walls, climbed a series of steps in the corner and reached a whitewashed rooftop. The sky was a black-blue and splashed with a million stars. The relief from the heat of the village was instantaneous and we quickly realised that the rooftops formed a second village full of activity and flickering light. We crossed the roof and climbed a few more steps, ducking beneath a low archway. On this second roof we came across a little old lady bundled beneath blankets in a well-worn metal-framed bed. Feeling awkward and intrusive, we averted our eyes and attempted to speed through unnoticed…but she smiled warmly as we passed.


“It’s cooler on the roof, so they wheel out granny’s bed every evening to help her sleep.” our guide explained.


We finally reached our destination. It was another whitewashed rooftop, surrounded by a low wall that overlooked the town’s terraced upper tier. The floor was covered with colourful carpets and cushions with a large silver tray and tea set in the centre. We slipped off our shoes and the home’s owner greeted us warmly. He handed us each a small glass of sweet tea and gestured for us to sit on the pillows.


The owner’s family brought out a wide array of bowls filled with salads and cheeses, fig-leaf wrapped rolls, rice and small samosas, flat breads and sweet pastries. The guide explained what each dish was as the family looked on proudly and happily. Shyly, we each made our way forward and collected a few items expressing our thanks as we did. The food was fresh and delicious and we soon relaxed and began devouring the wonderful feast. With the help of the guide and the children’s basic English, we chatted with the family and learned about a life so removed from our own. The family host a small group of no more than a dozen travellers once a week or so. It provides them with some extra income but perhaps more importantly it gives them an opportunity to mix with people from all over the world. Their warmth and friendliness humbled those of us who shut our front door and ignore the phone every evening and barely even recognise our neighbours at home.


Eventually it was time to leave. We bid our farewells and played follow-the-leader past sleeping granny and back through the maze of rooftops and alleyways. The football pitch was now deserted and pitch black and we eased down the bank to our small boat for the journey back to Aswan.


As we neared the city we slipped past brightly illuminated Nile cruise ships and luxury hotels and caught glimpses of their fine-dining rooms. Their guests sat in abject comfort, sipping their chilled wine and eating their gourmet food. Their stomachs may have been as full as ours, but we were all confident that memories of our dinner would still be satisfying us for years to come.

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan